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Using Poultry By-Products in Forage Production

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Publication Number: IS1635
View as PDF: IS1635.pdf

The Mississippi Phosphorus Index was developed by the Mississippi Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Mississippi State University Extension Service with input from many stakeholders to address conditions in the state. Phosphorus Index-based risk analysis looks at factors such as soil test phosphorus levels, soil permeability, field slopes, litter application rates, and distance to surface water to determine the probability of nutrient movement in the landscape. Farms with a history of poultry litter application or that will be used as part of a poultry grower’s site permit Waste Management Plan should do an environmental risk analysis using the Phosphorus Index. The process determines the potential of each field on a farm to contribute to nutrient movement to adjacent waters. In the planning process you can evaluate the results of various management options to find the best economic and environmentally protective plan for a specific field and farm. County Natural Resource Conservation Service offices and certified third party vendors of conservation planning services use this tool in working with poultry growers. Contact your county Extension office for more information on how you can use the Phosphorus Index in your situation.

Sample calculation using litter analysis results:

  • water content = 25% (therefore dry matter = 75%)
  • nitrogen content = 4%
  • phosphate content = 2%
  • potash content = 3%


2000 pounds litter per ton times 0.75 dry matter = 1500 pounds dry matter per ton

1500 pounds dry matter per ton times 0.04 nitrogen content = 60 pounds nitrogen per ton

1500 pounds dry matter per ton times 0.02 phosphate content = 30 pounds phosphate per ton

1500 pounds dry matter per ton times 0.03 potash content = 45 pounds potash per ton

In this case one ton of litter contains 500 pounds of water, 1500 pounds of dry matter, 60 pounds of nitrogen, 30 pounds of phosphate, and 45 pounds of potash. This is just an example. You should use data from your own situation.

Poultry by-products have long been recognized as a valuable fertilizer for pasture and forage production. Poultry litter is the shavings, manure, and other materials removed from poultry houses during total cleanout operations. Cake is the wetter material removed between individual flocks. Both are excellent soil amendments that provide nutrients for growing crops and also improve soil quality when applied wisely.

Environmental concerns and shifting land use to forestry in the poultry production area have focused attention on more widespread litter uses. All farmers who use fertilizer, whether poultry litter or commercial, should be aware of the principles of nutrient management. This simply means you know what is applied, where it’s going, how much, and how you do it.

Using nutrient management planning and implementing the prepared plan is good business and gives efficiency and makes the fertilizer program efficient and effective. The foundation for a good nutrient management program using poultry litter requires testing to determine your current soil fertility status and the plant nutrients in the poultry by-products.

Each farm should develop a sound, regular soil testing program. Soil testing is an inexpensive, easy-to-do Best Management Practice. It is an extremely powerful management aid. The test report will include pH, lime requirement, and nutrient levels in the soil.

One interesting effect of using litter in a soil fertility management is increased pH levels and decreased lime requirements over time in many soils. This is attributed to dicalcium phosphate in the poultry diet, which leads to significant calcium levels in the litter. Thus when litter is land applied, it has a liming effect.

Increasing the pH levels by meeting recommended lime requirements will have the extra benefit of increasing availability of native nutrients in the soil. The recommendations accompanying the soil test results will offer suggestions for economically maximizing crop yields.

Poultry litter and other animal by-products, such as cattle manure, are slow release nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers. However, research has shown a high percentage of the total potash from litter is available to growing plants soon after land application. Testing the nutrient content of the litter helps us manage the plant nutrients in the litter more efficiently. About half of the total nitrogen in the litter is available to growing crops in the year of application. The phosphate plants use in the year after application varies widely, from twenty to eighty percent of total applied, depending on soil types and other factors.

Enough litter applied to meet the nitrogen needs of a healthy growing crop means more phosphate added to the soil than the plants can use. We used to think soils had unlimited capacity to store this unused phosphate. Now we know that in certain situations there is a limit to how much phosphate soils can store, and the phosphate may move through or from the soil where it was applied.

Another very important laboratory analysis necessary for optimum litter management is moisture. Recent Mississippi State research has found moisture content of litter can vary from ten to forty percent of the total weight, so it is critical to know the moisture content of purchased litter. With the moisture content and nutrient percentages of the litter you can calculate the actual pounds of nutrient in the litter (see example calculation).

Application quantities should be based on common-sense, reasonable yield goals for the particular pasture or forage crop. On long-term poultry/cattle farms there is concern about phosphate removal rates. Cutting hay will remove much more phosphate (as well as potash) than grazing cattle on the same acreage.

Litter weighs about 31 pounds per cubic foot, much lighter than inorganic fertilizers. One problem is new users of litter, since existing inorganic fertilizer applicaiton equipment on many farms may not be able to adequately spread the material. Spreaders should feed evenly and have a good pattern that covers the throw path well.

You should avoid applying on wet soils to lessen soil compaction and nutrient loss through runoff and other pathways. Be careful to avoid any direct application to water along creeks and other water bodies. Incidentally, it is best to maintain good application offsets along property lines, since most complaints to authorities about litter application in Mississippi have come from annoyed neighbors.

Time applications when possible to coincide with active crop growth. This is not always possible because of scheduling concerns. If you cannot remove by-products during active crop growth, develop options for storage. You must manage the storage facilities to lessen offsite movement of materials caused by weather. You can do this by using covers, berms, or other techniques.

Much more information is available about using poultry litter in Mississippi farming systems through the MSU Extension Service. Contact your county Extension office for this material.

By Dr. Larry Oldham, Associate Specialist, Extension Plant and Soil Sciences

Mississippi State University does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, or veteran status.

Information Sheet 1635 Extension Service of Mississippi State University, cooperating with U.S. Department of Agriculture. Published in furtherance of Acts of Congress, May 8 and June 30, 1914. JOE H. MCGILBERRY, Interim Director (2M-03-02)

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